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Impacting Policy, Leading Culture Change: My Experiences as a Young Latinx Woman Intern the State Capitol

(Photo: Capitol Pathways interns cohort at the Minnesota State Capitol. Kathy Santamaria-Mendez pictured third from the right, second row from the back.)

By Kathy Santamaria-Mendez, Young Women’s Cabinet member

This spring, I had the opportunity to intern with Second Harvest Heartland through the Capitol Pathways program. Capitol Pathways is an internship program through the Citizen’s League that increases access to state government and policy careers for indigenous students and students of color. Through this amazing internship, I spent time at the Minnesota State Capitol every week doing research for Second Harvest Heartland on child hunger. This was my first internship, so I was very nervous, because I didn’t know what to expect.

The Capitol is a place that symbolizes power, respect, and leadership. However, for communities that have been excluded and marginalized for years, the Capitol can bring up a mixture of feelings. At first, I was a bit uncomfortable. Despite the fact that Minnesota is a pretty diverse state, a majority of the people representing us in government do not reflect this diversity. It was rare to see a leader of color there, and when I did come across someone who looked like me, the connection was instant.

During the first social gathering we had as Capitol Pathways interns, Senator Patricia Torres-Ray was the first person to welcome us. As a Latinx* myself, I felt beyond emotional hearing from her. Her experience as an immigrant and Latinx reflected many of our lives, and her words of encouragement really made me feel more welcomed at the Capitol.

Halfway through my internship, I attended a meeting with Rep. Erin Maye Quade. This was the second time during my internship that I was in the same room with a non-white lawmaker. Extremely passionate about child hunger, she is a strong supporter of the work of my host organization. While I was unable then to speak with her one-on-one, witnessing her bold support of what she believes was extremely powerful to me and other women of color I was with.

Leadership to End Sexual Harassment in the Age of #MeToo

An unexpected lesson in safety — and bearing witness to culture change in motion — was also part of my internship experience at the Capitol. Legislative leaders, including Rep. Erin Maye Quade and Jamie Becker-Finn, made headline news last November when they bravely spoke up about the sexual harassment they’d experienced in the workplace at the Capitol. I learned, firsthand, that being a woman at the Capitol can be an uncomfortable experience. Colleagues mentored me on what to wear and what not to wear — clothing shouldn’t be too tight, and don’t show your shoulders. In fact, some said to opt out of wearing dresses altogether. This shocked me. I went into this internship assuming that the Minnesota State Capitol would be a professional, safe, and welcoming space of respect for women.

During orientation, I received specific training on how to handle “uncomfortable situations.” Although I never encountered one — thankfully — I heard stories from others outside of my internship cohort about both physical and verbal situations that made them very uncomfortable.

The sexualization and objectification of women is something that strongly affects our society. I have always believed that what I wear and how I move through the world is my choice — and if it bothers others, that is their problem, not mine. My experience at the Capitol evolved and expanded my perspective. I realize now that in order to change a system, you have to be in the system and work from the inside-out. And being in the system means understanding the culture — knowing the rules and how to keep yourself safe.

It is clear how important it is that Rep. Quade and other legislative women leaders have taken up the fight for an end to sexual harassment in the workplace. The policies they advocate for at the Capitol will influence similar policies in workplaces across the state. And, their leadership has created a pathway for others to speak up and shine more light on this issue.

Impacting Policy, Leading Community Change

I am extremely happy that I was able to be a part of this amazing experience. I was able to learn more about how laws are created and all the people working behind the scenes to help move legislation forward. I realized that my presence as a woman and a person of color changed things up a bit. I am glad I got to meet many other college students of color. We all shared our experiences and created some deep friendships. I am grateful that Second Harvest Heartland opened their doors to me and helped me along my journey.

I learned what I can do to impact policy. From speaking with lawmakers to testifying at committee hearings, I realized that, as constituents, it’s crucial that we step up and take up space in the Capitol whenever needed.

I strongly encourage other young woman to look out for amazing internships like Capitol Pathways! It’s an awesome way to gain professional experience while making lifelong connections with other passionate individuals.

Kathy Santamaria-Mendez is currently an intern with Hennepin County Public Works through the Urban Scholars Program.

Definitions of Words Used in the Headline:

* Latinx (pronounced La-teen-ex) is a gender-neutral term to describe an individual of Latin origin, inclusive of cisgender, transgender, gender non-conforming, and gender non-binary people.

* Definition of woman, as stated in the Young Women of Minnesota’s Blueprint for Action: Anyone who identifies as a woman, inclusive of cisgender, transgender, gender non-conforming, and gender non-binary people.

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